This week, I spent a morning delivering two sessions about the Vikings to 7-11 year-olds in a Welsh primary school. I’d never done this before and I was rather nervous. Still, equipped with the Department’s recently acquired reproduction early medieval artefacts courtesy of Blueaxe Reproductions, I decided to teach them about Viking funerals. In short, this was the first ‘Archaeodeath’ foray into a primary school!
What and how would I teach them? I decided to adapt my experience of working with superb Viking-period educators and re-enactors Stuart Strong and Adam Parsons, with whom I participated in creating two ‘Viking funerals’ for those attending the Heysham Viking Festival in July 2018. The Heysham funerals attracted crowds of c. 65-80 people. We invited kids from the audience to serve as the ‘mourners’. Adam served as master of ceremonies, guiding them and composing the furnished inhumation graves on the grass within the Viking encampment. I served as ‘academic’ and ‘commentator’, playing a role somewhere between Ibn Fadlan, Neil Price and Jeremy Paxman.
Here’s a photo of Stuart as the male corpse for the second session, having composed a double burial for two female corpses in the first funeral. This activity mirrored but extended things I’d tried before on University open days, and have done so better since with the help of the Dept’s new reproduction kit, but involved younger children in active roles in participating and interpreting the selection of grave-goods placed to honour the dead.
The Welsh primary school sessions were loosely organised to emulate this practice in the school hall environment. I structured the session as follows:
- I introduced myself and then tested the pupils regarding their knowledge of the Vikings (they’ve been learning all about them). I quizzed the kids about Viking ships, material culture and settlements. They had already been taught a great deal and knew most of the answers to things I asked them;
- I then asked them what they know about Viking funerals: I got lots of information, much of it accurate. I explained about how the modern cliche of burning the dead in boats on water doesn’t leave archaeological evidence;
- I then asked for 5 volunteers to be the close family and friends of a dead Viking and help me to compose a furnished grave. There were many keen volunteers, and I tried to pick those of different ages and genders within the group;
- I then asked for a volunteer to be the dead Viking. In the first session, we had a ‘Viking queen’ volunteering to be a corpse, in the second, a ‘chieftain’. In each case, the ‘cadaver’ was tied (not literally) to a chair, emulating the 10th-century chamber graves from Birka, in which the cadavers were sometimes placed in a seated position;
- In each case, I asked the mourners to select only 1 item each to place with the dead to honour their memory and we then discussed why they chose what they chose and what it might mean. I then asked them to get some more items but agree on only one. This led to some bickering in the second group, and this was useful since I could discuss how funerals might have indeed been chaotic and involved disagreements and disputes;
- Subsequently, I discussed what we actually know about the choices to place grave-goods with the Viking-period dead, and what we don’t know, including whether these items simply marked the social status and identity of the dead person, or were gifts from mourners, whether they were items to recall deeds and positions held in life, or were items destined for an afterlife. We discussed potentially different ideas of the afterlife too, including journeys to otherworlds, or the dead being inhabitants of their burial mounds.
- I then talked about the many aspects of a Viking funeral we couldn’t reconstruct, including the lengthy preparations, processions, games, feasting, animal sacrifice and (just possibly) human sacrifice, the burning of the dead being a widespread practice, and the creation of funerary monuments. We discussed archaeological and written sources for these themes. I explained that, for some reason, the teachers wouldn’t allow me to do all of this on school premises.
- We then had lengthy Q&A sessions where my knowledge was tested to its limits: I think I must have answered at least 30 questions!;
- Finally, the schoolchildren got a chance to handle and ask questions about the BlueAxe reproduction items I’d brought, including a buckle, coin, tweezers, brooches, gaming pieces, knife, antler combs, pin, spear and helmet.
As I stated above, I hadn’t done a school visit before. I was delighted by how well it went despite my apprehensions. I hold school teachers in high regard and struggle to see how they manage to teach them so much and manage their behaviour: the groups were amazingly well behaved and attentive. Furthermore, I was astounded by the knowledge and enthusiasm of the children, but also the many insightful questions they asked about being an archaeologist and early medieval societies revealed by archaeological research. We broke through many of the Viking cliches, and the kids had a more insightful appreciation of funerary practices than many adult groups I’ve taught. For example, the pupils had many good and original ideas regarding (among other things):
- why female-gendered individuals might be buried with weapons;
- the significance of fire in funerary practices;
- the utility and significance of helmets;
- the importance of ‘getting along’ in the Viking period;
- the roles and meanings of horned headdresses in the Viking Age;
In summary, I was delighted by my warm reception and overwhelmed by the enthusiasm of the kids for all things early medieval! They have great teachers and have vibrant thinking minds. For 20 years I’ve taught university-level students, and I wish more of them would ask such challenging and insightful questions!